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The Last Straw: Reno Tower Asleep During Lifeguard Flight

FAA’s ATC chief resigns over repeated incidents

By Fareed Guyot, Manager – Electronic Publications, EAA 388642

April 14, 2011 —Numerous reported incidents of Air Traffic Control tower controllers falling asleep at facilities that have overnight shifts prompted the head of the FAA Air Traffic Organization to resign Thursday. Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of the ATO, will temporarily be replaced by David Grizzle, who currently is FAA’s chief counsel. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement that he is “committed to maintaining the highest level of public confidence and that begins with strong leadership.” The move is on the heels of an incident early Wednesday morning when a lifeguard flight inbound to Reno-Tahoe Airport (KRNO) received no response from the tower controller.

The pilot of the lifeguard flight, in a Piper Cheyenne II, can be heard (Courtesy: LiveATC.net) working with NorCal Approach as they tried to contact the tower through several methods. Finally the pilot told NorCal, “We need to land.” The approach controller issued a “land at your own risk” advisory to the lifeguard flight and the pilot landed under uncontrolled field procedures.

The FAA reported that the tower was unresponsive for 16 minutes. Later that day (April 13) the FAA announced the immediate placement of an additional air traffic controller on the midnight shift at 27 control towers across the country that are currently staffed with only one controller during that time.

Last month, the issue of controller fatigue was thrust to the forefront when a controller at Reagan-National Airport fell asleep forcing two scheduled airline flights to land on their own. Soon other incidents began to surface, as the FAA announced investigations into incidents at several other towers across the country. In Knoxville, Tennessee, last February a controller reportedly brought a pillow and sleeping bag to the radar room while the controller in the tower acted as both radar and tower controller for an hour before the radar controller woke up. That controller has been fired.

FAA Administrator Babbitt and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi are launching a nationwide call to action on air traffic control safety and professionalism. Next week, with members of their senior leadership teams, they will visit air traffic facilities around the country to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards.

Some other incidents reported by the FAA include ATC facilities in Seattle, Washington, and Lubbock, Texas.

  • The FAA has suspended an air traffic controller at Boeing Field/King County International Airport (BFI) in Seattle, Washington, for falling asleep during his morning shift on April 11, 2011. The controller was monitoring local traffic in the airport tower cab while two other controllers worked arriving and departing aircraft. The FAA is investigating this incident. The controller is already facing disciplinary action for falling asleep on two separate occasions during the early evening shift on January 6, 2011.

  • The FAA has also suspended two controllers for an incident that occurred during the early morning hours of March 29, 2011, at Preston Smith International Airport (LBB) in Lubbock, Texas. During the midnight shift, the Lubbock controllers failed to hand off control of a departing aircraft to the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center. It also took repeated attempts for a controller at the Fort Worth Air Traffic Control Center to reach the Lubbock controllers to hand off an inbound aircraft.

FAA Administrator Babbitt said the following:

“Over the last few weeks we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety. This conduct must stop immediately. I am committed to maintaining the highest level of public confidence and that begins with strong leadership.

“This morning I met with the head of our Air Traffic Organization, the part of the Federal Aviation Administration charged with operating our air traffic control system. Hank Krakowski has submitted his resignation and I have accepted it. Hank is a dedicated aviation professional and I thank him for his service. Starting today, I have asked David Grizzle, FAA's chief counsel, to assume the role of acting ATO chief operating officer while we conduct a nationwide search to permanently fill the position. 

“We are conducting a top-to-bottom review of the way we operate our air traffic control system. We are all responsible and accountable for safety - from senior FAA leadership to the controller in the tower. Employees at the FAA work diligently every day to run the safest air transportation system in the world. But I will continue to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure we concentrate on keeping the traveling public safe.”

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